What is ripeness?
Everyone knows that when you have 5 winemakers in a room you’ll have around 7 different opinions on any given topic. Ripeness is one of those topics that bring up more discussion than most because the decision when to pick is one of the most important, if not THE most important, decisions that a winemaker will make during the vintage. I’m sure you’ve heard several terms thrown around to describe ripeness. The top terms are…
This topic gets a ton of attention because the amount of sugar you have in the grapes is directly correlated to the amount of alcohol in a finished wine (assuming the wine is finished to dryness). Alcohol is a hot topic of conversation right now given that there seems to be a bit of a backlash against the really hot alcohol bombs of over 15%. All sugar ripeness means is that the grapes have reached the amount of sugar that will produce the minimum alcohol desired depending on what the winemaker wants to achieve.
Phenolic Ripeness (Pronounced Fee-nol-ic)
Phenolics in a grape are the tannins, the color compounds (called anthocyanins) as well as some flavor compounds. This is a bit more complicated than sugar ripeness as it involves both the phenolics in the skins as well as the seeds and pulp. When the phenolics are ripe then the flavors in the finished wine are more developed, the color is more developed (golden for white grapes and deep red for red varieties), and the tannins are ripe and not green. If you would like to try green tannins go purchase seeded table grapes in the grocery store and munch down on some of the seeds being careful not to break teeth of course. The sensation of bitterness and dryness that you feel are green tannins. Ripe seeds crack easily and have a nice crunchy character that is very similar to espresso beans.
This form of ripeness is purely up to the discretion of the winemaker and what their goal is for the flavors of the finished wine. This is where “hang time” comes into play. If your goal is a nice crisp white then you may wait until the grapes have a citrus and apple taste however if you want a riper style white then picking may be delayed until more tropical fruit notes have appeared. Reds are similar that they transition through stages of flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon will go through green bell pepper, black pepper, raspberry, black cherry and finally blackberry during its development.
This form of ripeness is, to me, the most important because it is what the grapevine itself considers ripe. Keep in mind that the goal of a grapevine is not to make fantastic wine, table grapes, or raisins, but to reproduce. The vine’s entire purpose is to ripen seeds to the point that they will be able to grow and spread the parent vines’ genetic code far and wide aided by birds. Once the vine senses that the seeds are ripe enough and it has produced enough sugar to attract birds to eat the fruit then chemical signals are sent out to physically separate the fruit from the rest of the vine. The vine then turns its energies towards storing carbohydrates to survive the winter and start up again the following spring. Once the vine thinks it’s done that is the end of natural sugar accumulation (meaning the vine is finished making sugar). It is the hope of the winemaker and the goal of the vineyard manager to coax the vines to reach this stage at the exact same time that they reach the other three levels of ripeness.
This, of course, rarely happens but the decision to pick can fall very close to the intersection of these different sets of parameters. It is up to the winemaker to decide what parameters are flexible and which ones are absolutely needed for their wine styles.
Another piece of the puzzle that gets watched like a hawk is acid. The level of acid starts very high at Verasion and falls steadily over the weeks leading up to harvest. As the temperature heats up so does the speed of acid degradation (the official name for the acid drop). Therefore the cooler the region the more acid the grapes can retain over a given period of time, say the time between verasion and harvest. This is the reason regions with warm to hot days but cool nights can typically make better wine than those regions with closer day and night temperatures.
So now given all the different factors and definitions of ripeness, I hope you have a better understanding of why there are so many different ways to think about ripeness in general. That way the next time you hear a winemaker talk about picking at the peak of ripeness you will know that it means what the peak of ripeness is to them.